Outlines of ESEA’s Future Emerging on Capitol Hill

By Alyson Klein — May 13, 2011 8 min read
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Four months after President Barack Obama made education a centerpiece of his State of the Union address, lawmakers charged with reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are beginning to sketch out their own visions for aspects of the law’s renewal.

Still, the prospects that Congress will meet the president’s goal—a comprehensive, bipartisan reauthorization by the start of the next school year—remain cloudy.

Bipartisan talks continue in the Senate, but lawmakers are still puzzling over issues at the heart of the ESEA, including just what the federal role in school improvement and accountability should be. The current version of the law, the 9-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, greatly expanded Washington’s role in holding schools accountable for their students’ academic results.

Meanwhile, Republican members of the GOP-led House are preparing a series of bills on such issues as funding flexibility and the elimination of certain education programs. It’s an open question whether those measures will ultimately garner the broad bipartisan support necessary to craft final legislation at a time when each party controls just one chamber and the White House is in Democratic hands.

The administration is beginning to express frustration with the progress of negotiations.

“We are concerned that it is not moving at a more rapid pace,” Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education, said at a May 12 event hosted by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. Still, she complimented lawmakers on their commitment to moving a bill forward.

Even though neither the House’s nor the Senate’s education committee has released a comprehensive reauthorization bill, lawmakers are working on more targeted legislation dealing with important pieces of the ESEA, which has been the flagship federal law in K-12 education since 1965.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has long said he would like to break the ESEA-renewal bill into smaller, bite-size pieces.

On Friday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a member of the committee, introduced the first piece of legislation, a bill that would permanently scrap a number of smaller education programs that lawmakers say aren’t effective.

That list includes many of the programs that were defunded in the final fiscal year 2011 budget legislation, which cut funding for Striving Readers, Smaller Learning Communities, and the Even Start Family Literacy program, among other programs.

President Obama targeted many of those same programs for consolidation in his recent budget request for fiscal 2012. Under the administration’s plan, for instance, a number of smaller teacher-training programs would be scrapped, though the money would go into one competitive pot aimed at improving teacher quality.

But the House bill would instead entirely eliminate programs deemed ineffective in order to save money, not simply shift them to other funding streams, advocates say.

Rep. Kline expects the new legislation could spark a partisan fight.

“Everyone is willing to eliminate or consolidate a program or two,” he said at a May 4 event at another Washington think tank, the Heritage Foundation. “We’re going to take a little bit bigger step than that. We just have programs that we don’t need out there.”

The House committee also is preparing a bill that would give school districts more leeway to transfer federal funds from one program to another.

“Schools are enormously frustrated that they can’t move money,” Rep. Kline said at the Heritage Foundation event. “They need flexibility in funding.”

Lawmakers are considering allowing districts to move all of the money out of a particular funding stream and transfer it to another, according to advocates familiar with the discussions.

House members also are considering including language that would free districts from federal reporting requirements for funding streams they don’t use. There could be just two key exceptions: the law’s Title I, which supports programs for disadvantaged children, and Title III, which authorizes aid for programs serving English-language learners.

Mixed Reaction

The flexibility proposal is not something that many Democrats are likely to support, said Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee in New York City.

Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, met with Mr. Kline last week to discuss the pending legislation. “The meeting went well. I’m hopeful that we’re on track to keep moving forward with the reauthorization,” he said.

Officials with the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va., were pleased with what they were hearing about the flexibility proposal.

“We see this as a strong parallel” with the increased rhetoric around local control, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy and advocacy for the AASA.

As schools struggle to cope with the end of funding from the federal economic-stimulus program, they’ll welcome the chance to move dollars around, she said. “Flexibility can be as good as new money,” Ms. Ellerson said.

She expressed concern, however, that the greater leeway being proposed could take pressure off Congress to boost funding for education.

National Education Association officials were less than thrilled with what they were hearing from Capitol Hill sources about the legislation.

Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the NEA, said a number of schools are already struggling to find funding for students in poverty, English-language learners, and other students needing extra help. She worries that those groups could be shortchanged under the bill.

“If the federal government isn’t providing money for high-poverty students and ELLs, among other special populations, ... who else will?” Ms. Kusler said.

Debate Over Federal Role

The scope of the federal role in education has also become a point of discussion in the Senate, where bipartisan talks on the ESEA continue. Some senators are interested in training the federal focus primarily on the lowest-performing schools, perhaps the bottom 5 percent or 10 percent, advocates say.

Since discussions are ongoing, it’s still unclear just what an accountability system that focused primarily—or only—on the lowest-performing schools would look like.

Some in the civil rights community say limiting the federal emphasis only to the lowest-performing schools is not good policy.

“There’s no indication that there’s going to be a [draft bill] that includes something other than the lowest five to ten percent of schools, and that won’t cut it,” said Dianne Piche, the director of education programs for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the influential coalition of business organizations, has also made clear that it wants to see all schools included in the accountability system under a reauthorized ESEA, not just the lowest performers.

The group recently released a set of proposals for reauthorizing the ESEA that kept key aspects of the current accountability system intact, such as setting a clear deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in reading and math and requiring states to set annual, measurable goals for the achievement of all students, and for specific subgroups, such as racial minorities.

“There is an important federal role in education,” said Margaret Spellings, the president of the Chamber’s Forum for Policy Innovation, who served as U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush.

But GOP education leaders in the Senate are thinking along very different lines, a senior Republican staff aide said.

“The challenge with what the Chamber and the Washington groups are suggesting is that there is still too much of a command-and-control philosophy,” the aide said. “Washington needs to get out of the way. Trying to micromanage the system didn’t work with NCLB; it’s not going to work if we build a better mousetrap.”

The aide said Republican education leaders in the Senate do want to keep some aspects of the current system intact, such as requiring states to continue to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States would still report student-achievement data, and data would still need to be disaggregated by student subgroups, including racial minorities.

But GOP senators overseeing education policy would like most of the federal attention to shift to fixing schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent in student performance. The federal government would not specify interventions or labels for other schools, the aide said.

It’s not clear whether Democrats will go along with that plan, education advocates say.

But Mr. Barone said he is worried that the interest in focusing on the lowest performers could be bipartisan.

“I’ve been surprised that I’ve talked to Democrats who’ve been persuaded that that’s an adequate federal role,” he said. “Focusing on just five or ten percent of schools is going to miss the majority of students who aren’t getting a college-and-career-ready education.”

For his part, Rep. Kline, the House education committee chairman, hasn’t yet laid out his vision for a new accountability system in detail, but he did hint at his views when speaking to the Heritage Foundation earlier this month.

“I think many of us would say, maybe you don’t need to be accountable to the secretary of education,” he said. “Maybe you ought to be accountable to the local community, to parents,” school boards, and states.

Other Measures

Although senators have yet to introduce a comprehensive reauthorization bill, some key senators have recently put forth legislation dealing with key topics. The bills could be incorporated into a broader ESEA law.

One measure, sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., would codify the administration’s four models for turning around the lowest performing school, which include closing schools and replacing staff. The bill would make some tweaks to the program, in part to help rural schools share best practices.

Another is a literacy bill, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., which would help states and districts bolster instruction in reading and writing for students from birth through grade 12.

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Outlines of ESEA’s Future Emerging on Capitol Hill


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